04/01/2015 01:10 EDT | Updated 06/01/2015 05:59 EDT

Optimism For Burma Quietly Gives Way To Oppression And Violence

Claude LeTien via Getty Images

There was optimism and hope in the air four years ago, when Burma's democratic government prised control of the country from the military after 49 years of brutal rule. The Burmese, and indeed the world, looked to the new government to relax the iron grip of the army and initiate a wave of liberal change. But the new leaders are still cracking down on ethnic minorities and students as if it was a force of habit.

In mid-March 2015, police beat students, monks and journalists and jailed over 120 people as they broke up a week-long demonstration against an unpopular education bill. The bill hamstrings students' abilities to form unions and switches decision-making power from academics to government.

Meanwhile, in the countryside, the state is still getting stuck in to three ethnic minority groups. Roughly 20 million Burmese are of ethnic minorities and have fought some of the world's longest-running insurgencies for autonomous homelands. The stateless Rohingya are described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. They are hated in their native northern Burma and unwelcome in neighbouring Bangladesh, where tens of thousands live in refugee camps, where they exist on the fringes of society, undocumented and at risk of exploitation.

In the freezing foothills of the Himalayas in northern Burma, the ethnic Kachin have been at war since last year when the Burmese Army shattered a 17-year ceasefire by attacking a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) post. The attack forced 100,000 Kachin to flee. Most survive in ramshackle tents on the Chinese border. A spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs calls the situation "critical." In World War II, the Kachin rangers fought with a legendary bravery rivaling the ferocious Gurkhas. The Kachins are Christians who were converted by British and American missionaries, which causes them persistent discrimination in Buddhist-majority Burma.

My interest in Burma, which bordered on obsession, started when I read this International Herald Tribune headline in the early 90s; "Burmese Pro-Democracy Leader Detained Under House Arrest." As I read further, I learned that Aung San Suu Kyi had been elected president of Burma in a landslide, but the military junta disregarded the will of the people and placed Suu Kyi, now a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, under house arrest. It incensed me that a bunch of murderous thugs had once again stifled democracy and arbitrarily disregarded the rule of law. I decided that I had to go to Burma and write about this first-hand.

The closest I could get was a Thai border town called Mae Sot. I stayed in a cheap hotel with concrete walls that sweated so much they appeared to be weeping. During the day, I walked around and asked people about Burma. I met two young men, Dack and Theo, who were part of a group of students, the All Burma Students' Democratic Front, that had risen up in arms against the regime. I listened to their stories of humping ammunition and ancient hand-me-down weapons through the jungle and battling the modern weapons of the Burmese army. Dack and Theo talked about the constant shortage of food. They told me a story about how they once had to abandon a position in a hurry. When they came back they found maggots in their rice, but they were so hungry they ate it anyway, maggots and all. Many of them got sick and had to be carried out. During the retreat, Theo's foot and calf were shredded when he stepped on a land mine. Fortunately, there was a medical student among them who stopped the worst of the bleeding. They carried Theo to a nearby Doctors Without Borders camp. The doctors wanted to cut off his foot, but he didn't want to leave the fight and asked them to fix it up the best they could. He rolled up his pant leg to reveal a thin, curved foot with almost no flesh.

Dack told me about the Karen, another ethnic Burmese people who sought independence and were persecuted by the authorities. So like most ethnic minorities in Burma, they armed themselves and took the warpath against the army. No prisoners were taken when the Burmese army savaged the Karen National Liberation Army. The refugees from the slaughter fled into Thailand and were rounded up into internment camps. He told me about a refugee camp for Karen outside of nearby Chiang Mai. I went there the next day. The camp was run by the Thai army and the atmosphere was tense as the wide gate swung open. Word must have spread quickly that there was a foreigner in the camp. Children swarmed me as I was shown into the home of the headman. He asked me my name in English. I found out that he had studied English at a college in Bangkok and practised it using a well-worn copy of Plato's Republic. I could tell that the book was his prized possession. The headman asked me to sign his book, which I did. He said, "Friends forever, Canada." After a couple of hours, I sensed it was time to leave. I was escorted to the front gates by some of my new friends. I thought this was a polite gesture, but I also suspected it was dangerous for them to be seen speaking to a foreigner. I felt they wanted to make sure I left before nightfall.

The latest contest for the future of Burma is clearly fraught with oppression and intolerance. It seems the optimism and hope in the air four years ago in Burma and around the world has quietly been replaced by violence and tragedy.